Bon Débarras’s name translates as “Good Riddance”, but that’s the last thing anyone’s likely to say when the Montreal-based trio leaves a stage. “Wow!” is the more usual response, thanks to the group’s energetic fusion of traditional step-dancing, Québécois folk music, and influences from around the globe.
Most of all, audiences are going to be knocked out by the fancy footwork of Jean-François Dumas. In addition to playing harmonica, banjo, and guitar, he’s effectively Bon Débarras’s drummer, even though snare, kick, and cymbals are noticeably absent from his musical toolkit. That’s because he specializes in podorythmie—playing percussion using only his feet and the floor.
“It’s very typical of Quebec, this kind of art, but when we go out of Quebec, in France or the United States, people are very fascinated by it,” says Dumas’s bandmate Dominic Desrochers, an acclaimed singer and step-dancer who also plays banjo, guitar, and washboard. On the line from a Winnipeg tour stop, he explains that in Québécois folk music, foot percussion predates the 19th-century introduction of the piano and the 20th-century adoption of the guitar.
“It’s the original accompaniment to fiddle or accordion music,” he notes. “You’re dancing, sitting on a chair, and playing percussion—and with Jean-François, he’s playing banjo and harmonica at the same time, as well as singing. It’s really impressive.”
Add Luzio Altobelli’s accordion virtuosity and you’ve got what Desrochers calls “acoustic rock groove music”, but even that’s a misleadingly reductive explanation of what Bon Débarras has to offer. As documented on its eponymous debut, the band combines elegant original songs with the considerably more rustic sounds that Desrochers was exposed to during his family’s multigenerational jam sessions. As well, it draws on the melting-pot reality of contemporary Montreal.
“Traditional French-Canadian music was inspired by immigration—the old immigration, with Irish music, Scottish music, English music, and music from France, too,” the multi-instrumentalist stresses. “And today the immigration’s still going on, with African and Latin American people, people from around the world. So we’re inspired by all these cultures, and want to integrate them into our culture.”
To bolster his argument, Desrochers points out that Dumas will make a bonus appearance at this weekend’s Festival du Bois, tapping his feet along to Argentine-born guitarist Juan Sebastian Larobina’s innovative take on the tango. Don’t think that Québécois folk music has entirely abandoned its national-treasure status in favour of international exploration, though. Giving the Straight an impromptu French lesson, Desrochers explains the secondary meanings of his band’s punning name.
“Débarras also means a storage room: it’s a place where we store old memories and old things in case we need them one day,” he says. “But sometimes those things can grow in value. That’s why we search for old songs that can also be a reality today. That’s why we go into the archives or draw on family repertoire.
“And, too, débarras can mean a release or deliverance from something,” he continues. “In that way, we see music as kind of an antioxidant of the soul. It makes us feel good when we play so, yeah, it’s good riddance—good riddance to sad feelings.”
Bon Débarras plays the Festival du Bois in Maillardville’s Mackin Park on Saturday and Sunday (March 3 and 4).